Conjunto legend Ruben Vela dead at 72
Bruce Lee Smith
HARLINGEN — Conjunto legend Ruben Vela’s career stretched from his boyhood in dusty South Texas dance halls to the days of the powermix and the music video. The accordion mastery that kept people dancing for more than half a century has been forever silenced. Vela, 72, died Tuesday evening at Valley Baptist Medical Center.
Known as the "King of the Dance Hall Sound," Vela started recording in the 1950s but scored his biggest success at an age when most people start considering retirement. In the late 1990s, Vela’s hits "El Coco Rayado Powermix" and "La Papaya" brought the 60-year-old international fame and a whole new generation of fans.
Vela’s distinctive style kept dance hall crowds moving during a performing career that began when he was only 12. Whether it was a polka, ranchera or cumbia, the dance floor was always full when Vela started playing.
His wife, Molly Vela, said, "There will never be another Ruben."
"He was a wonderful, down-to-earth person. Everybody loved him because he was such a good person," she said.
"He never complained about anything. He was very happy with his music." This April, they would have been married 48 years.
Rey Avila, founder of the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito, said conjunto music will miss one of its finest artists. "It’s sad. He was one of the pioneers of real traditional conjunto music," Avila said.
Avila said Vela’s family called him Tuesday night to give him the news. "We all loved him," Avila said. "Conjunto music has really lost a true pioneer."
"He was one of the best, there’s no other way to describe it," he said.
Local conjunto accordionist and singer Frutoso Villareal called Vela more than just a great musician. Villareal said he’ll always remember Vela as a loving father, a strong family man and a trusted friend. "For me, he was like a friend, like a brother," Villareal said.
Villareal called Vela a mentor and teacher who showed him how to play conjunto music since the young age of 12. "I’m truly going to miss him," he said, adding, "I’ll always remember him whenever I play conjunto music."
Villareal said the Rio Valley should be proud of Vela, calling him one of the style’s greatest ambassadors.
"Right now, it’s a loss for conjunto music, but I know he’s in heaven playing conjunto music at the golden gates," he said.
Born May 10, 1937 in San Antonio, Mexico, Vela grew up in Relampago and Mercedes. The Velas were a musical family and Ruben’s nine brothers and one sister could all play instruments. When he turned 11, Vela’s mother spent the princely sum of $70 to buy Vela his first accordion.
Vela practiced day and night. At dances and quinceañeras, he would watch the playing of conjunto pioneers such as Narciso Martinez, Valerio Longoria, and in particular, Tony de la Rosa. By the next year he felt ready to start performing in public.
By the mid-1950s, Vela had become a regular on Martin Rosales’ live radio show on KGBT-AM. Impressed by Vela’s talent, Rosales introduced him to Arnaldo Ramirez Sr., the owner of McAllen’s Discos Falcon. Vela’s first single was an instrumental called "Adolorido," a tune based on two old traditional Mexican songs, "Adolorido" and "El Abandonado." It became an instant hit.
It was the first of many hits for Vela. Others included "Te Regalo El Corazon," "Mire Amigo," and "El Oso Negro." Two of his most beloved singles were "El Pajuelazo" and "El Tiroteo." Over the decades, Vela also recorded for labels such as Bego, Freddie, Dina, Joey and Hacienda, and most recently, Crown.
Vela’s years of performing and his influence on conjunto were recognized by countless awards and honors. He was inducted into the Halls of fame of the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum, the South Texas Conjunto Association and the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio.
The Vela musical tradition has been passed on: Ruben "Rabbit" Vela Jr. is the drummer in Vela’s conjunto band. His daughter, singer Marlissa Vela, has several CDs to her name and a musical career that has taken her all over the country.
Valley Morning Star reporter Michael Barajas contributed to this story.